What is VPN? [Definition, How Does it Works]

What is VPN

Basics of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs)

The Internet has become an integral part of our lives. Today, no one can imagine living an offline life. From discovering new information to conducting banking transactions, everything happens at the tap of a finger these days. But with the immense convenience, comes a whole new world of troubles.

Since the Internet is a public utility, it comes with inherent risks like data breaches and IP and DNS hacks that can cause considerable financial loss to individuals and organizations. Regardless of what firewalls and anti-virus software you install on your device, Internet connectivity is open to hacking unless you employ good network security software.

Network security software and tools safeguard the information that goes out of your system and into the open Internet. Think of them as the reverse force of anti-virus software that you install on your PC, laptop, or Smartphone. Just like anti-virus software prevents viruses from entering into your device, network security software prevents hackers from stealing the data that goes out from your device. This ensures that your login credentials, banking details, etc., don’t get into the wrong hands.

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In this post, we’re going to shed light on the best network security mechanism, which is a virtual private network or VPN. Allow us to introduce you to some of the basic concepts of VPNs.

First things first – What is VPN and how does it help you?

A VPN, as already hinted at, is a mechanism that secures your Internet connection. When you use a VPN, all data that you share over the Internet is sent through an encrypted virtual tunnel so that unintended people can make no sense of it. This encrypted data can only be decrypted by special keys that the intended recipient possesses, and thus, unauthorized people can’t use it in any way. In addition to enforcing data privacy, this entire cycle eliminates the risk of anyone finding out your geographic location through your device’s IP address since it’s masked and can’t be traced easily. In this way, VPN software provides you with invaluable security and privacy.

VPN apps can be installed on your Smartphone, tablet, laptop, or any other device. A VPN service provider typically has servers located at diverse geographical locations, and when you establish a VPN connection (secure virtual tunnel) with another computer, the connection can be hosted on any geographical server that belongs to your VPN provider. So, for example, if your VPN connection is being hosted by a UK server, to anyone who wishes to trace your IP address, it will appear that you’re located in the UK. With this advantage by your side, you can even access websites that are only meant for the UK, and that you can’t normally access from your home country.

How does a VPN work?

Your Internet connection is facilitated by your ISP. And as such, even if you don’t realize it, the record of your all online activity is stored on the ISP’s server, which is also responsible for directing data towards your device.

Suppose you wish to watch a video on YouTube on your device. You’ll type the URL in your web browser and hit Enter (or use the YouTube app to browse, select, and then play). This will send a request to your ISP server which will send a request to YouTube’s server. The data that the ISP server then receives from the YouTube server will be directed to your device.

If the governing authority in your country has put a restriction on any specific content, your ISP will prevent you from accessing it. For example, if you’re trying to view some YouTube content that’s blocked by your government, even though the YouTube server will send the data to your ISP server (because it’s located outside the country and your country restrictions don’t apply to it), your ISP server will block the content and you won’t be able to watch it.

Now consider the same scenario again, but with the difference that you’re using a VPN to access blocked YouTube content. This is how the process will flow in this case.

Your VPN service provider will prompt you to access one of its servers when you request to establish a secure connection. When you select a specific VPN server, it will treat you as part of its local network for that server. For example, if you select a VPN server in the US, it will treat you as a local US resident. Now when you access YouTube, your ISP will know that the connection is coming from a VPN server but since the VPN will replace your IP address with its custom address (which will be located in the US), the blocked content will be successfully routed to your device. So basically, the VPN service provider will create a secure channel between YouTube’s server and your device and route the blocked content through it. In this way, although your ISP will know that you’re using a VPN service, it won’t be able to know what data you’re accessing through it since it will be transmitted through an encrypted channel.

That’s the reason VPNs are regarded as the most secure ways to exchange confidential data, for example, company documents and project details, government contracts, banking transaction details, etc.

What are the different uses of VPN?

Not every country in the world allows you to access every website. Some geographical locations have strict Internet censorships that prevent you from accessing certain websites. Even if you try to access such websites in such countries, the authorities can track your activities and put you behind bars for breach.

The VPN technology has evolved over the recent years in terms of its ability to bypass Internet censorship without leaving a trace. A VPN allows you to access prohibited websites without the risk of getting caught.

Additionally, here are some more uses of VPNs:

  • To unlock geographically restricted services, like streaming websites and entertainment channels, in your home country where they might not be available
  • To hide your true location and gain anonymity while surfing the Internet
  • To protect yourself from hacking when accessing public Wi-Fi hot spots.
  • To maintain secrecy while uploading or downloading content through torrent.
  • To safeguard your private data, like bank details and passwords, when logging in to different accounts
  • To save money on air-tickets and online purchases by emulating the IP addresses of different countries
  • To access business networks when accessing company information from a different location

Are VPNs Safe?

In general, VPNs are considered safe to use as they can secure your Internet connection and data during transmission over unknown networks. However, the fact is that they’re not 100% foolproof.

Like any other software, VPNs can have bugs that can be exploited by hackers. There are around 200+ VPN tools available online, all boasting to offer the best security and privacy to Internet users. But you shouldn’t get carried away by these tall claims, and instead, look for a service that offers the best security, privacy, and loads of features to make Internet surfing easy.

According to security experts, you should avoid free VPN services as they might be loaded with malware. A lot of scammers out there trying to entice people by offering premium services at attractive prices. While you may be tempted to opt for such services, you shouldn’t spend money without reading reviews or conducting thorough research.

Is using a VPN legal?

The laws that govern Internet usage change with each country. In the US, and even some European countries, the law allows you to use VPNs without any restrictions since they’re considered legitimate tools. However, in Middle Eastern countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and a few more, VPN is seen as a piece of software that’s particularly used to bypass Internet censorship of that country. Hence, most Middle Eastern countries block access to VPN websites. Even so, many residents and visitors to Gulf countries use VPNs to access region-locked content at their own risk.

Are VPNs easy to use?

Although the underlying function of a VPN might be a little technical to understand, the interface of most VPN services is very easy to use. Since most end-users of VPNs are people having limited technical expertise who just wish to unblock geographically restricted content, VPN service providers take special care to make their service user-friendly.

In most cases, to use a VPN:

  1. You need to install the software provided by the VPN service provider. If you aren’t comfortable with personalized settings, you can go with default options during the installation and everything will still work fine.
  2. Once the software is installed, you will be prompted to create a username and password to access the VPN server.
  3. Thereafter, you’ll have the option to select any VPN server (geographical location) depending on your surfing needs. You can either save your location preferences in the software or you can choose a new VPN server location every time.
  4. Once the connection is established, you can surf the Internet normally. The VPN works in the background to secure your Internet connection and keep your identity and data safe.

Leading VPN service providers give you the option to choose between free and premium accounts. Free accounts have daily data limits and you can’t use the VPN service until the next day when your data limit is set to be renewed. Free accounts also have limitations on the VPN server locations you can choose. On the other hand, premium users don’t have to face any kind of limitations while using the service. There are no data limits and you have wider options in terms of server locations. 

Do VPNs guarantee 100% anonymity?

Even though they theoretically should, the fact is that VPNs don’t guarantee 100% anonymity.

If you think that all you need to do is use a VPN to hide your nefarious activities, then you should be ready for a surprise when law agencies come knocking on your door! Top-notch security agencies like the NSA use advanced networking and surveillance software that make 100% Internet anonymity an impossible dream.

However, if you plan to use a VPN for harmless purposes like accessing geo-restricted websites or watch geo-locked content on streaming services, there’s nothing to worry about. These activities aren’t considered criminal, so you can continue using VPNs for them. 

VPN performance and speed

When you’re using a VPN, there are a lot of things working in the background. The VPN software is establishing a secure tunnel to send your data, and then encrypting and decrypting the data on-the-go. All this needs a lot of processor power and Internet speed. So if you have a limited bandwidth connection, when using a VPN, you will naturally experience a slight decrease in Internet speed and reduced computer performance. However, this is true for basic computers that have limited RAM and processing power. If you have a laptop with a fast processor and loads of RAM, you might hardly notice any degradation in performance.

To ensure that you enjoy the fastest VPN speed, always choose a VPN server close to your geographical location. If you only want security and privacy, you can choose to select a VPN server in your home country. However, if you want to access blocked content, you can select a server in your neighboring country where the content you want isn’t blocked.  

Final Word

A VPN is a useful service that lets you enjoy a lot of perks while browsing the Internet. In addition to making your data secure and protecting it from hackers, such a service also allows you to overcome geo-restrictions and gives true meaning to “free Internet.” With an Internet connection safeguarded with a reliable and efficient VPN, you can have ample peace of mind as you surf the online world. But not every VPN is the same, and you shouldn’t blindly select the one that you see first. Read up reviews, conduct a little research, and rely on market reputation to choose the best one that suits your purpose.

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